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Snapshot: E-Sports Bar (Nidhogg)

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I’ve never been one for so-called “e-sports,” the treatment of competitive video games like League of Legends and DOTA as a new class of sport, worthy of being placed alongside baseball, soccer, and the like. I think the whole concept is a little silly, especially since most of the game rules are far too labyrinthine to be accessible for anyone who doesn’t already play the game obsessively. Until very recently, I also couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea of watching a video game the way my dad watches baseball. It just didn’t make sense.

And yet I found myself at SF Game Night, a massive video gaming get-together organized by a San Francisco bar called the Folsom Street Foundry. With competitive DOTA and Super Smash Bros. matches playing out on giant projector screens, this was the closest thing I’d ever seen to an “e-sports bar.” It wasn’t all just passive, though — dozens of consoles and computers lined the walls, drawing crowds to play obscure SNES games and indie favorites like Towerfall Ascension. On the recommendation of Ani-Gamers’ David Estrella, I tried out Nidhogg (available on Steam or the official website), which had an enviable spot on one of the large projectors on the wall.

The game is simple: two side-scrolling fencers attempt to run toward their respective, opposing goal posts, and when one kills the other, they respawn after a short time, giving the killer a chance to gain ground. There are lots of little mechanics, like the ability to throw your sword and pick up dropped ones, but at it’s most basic level the game plays out like a demented, pixelated little game of football. After I gave it a try, I reluctantly relinquished the controller to my friend, who sat down for her first game. After she figured out the controls, she and her opponent started trading blows and moving back and forth across the field. But unlike most games of Nidhogg, this one just kept going. Every time it seemed like the yellow player would pull ahead, the orange one would ambush them and take control of the game. I and a few others started cheering my friend or her opponent on.

Before long, we had amassed a crowd of onlookers, all engrossed by this seemingly endless game of Nidhogg. People were picking sides and cheering at the top of their lungs when their chosen player scored a hit. When they would get taken down, you’d hear a dozen or so people groan in disappointment. Strangely, I found myself cheering along, screaming at my friend to come back from a shocking takedown. In a brief moment of clarity it hit me — here I was, in a bar, yelling at a TV in hopes that the yellow team would win the game. For all my disdain of e-sports, I was in the midst of something that could only be called a sport. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to understand how a fan watching a video game could be screaming “hit him, hit him!” with the same fervor as a non-gamer might scream “get the ball!” I don’t remember who won the game, but the memory of cheering alongside an excited crowd, caught up in the energy of watching a virtual, pixel-art sport, sticks with me.

I maintain my stance on the sports-ification of MOBAs (multiplayer online battle arenas) like League of Legends and DOTA, but simple games like Nidhogg allow anybody to walk in and understand the basic mechanics, pick a side, and start the important part of sports fandom: enthusiastically shouting at players in the hopes that somehow it helps them win.

Snapshots is a monthly column in which one of our writers reflects upon a particular moment from an anime, manga, or video game. New entries are posted on or around the 15th of each month. To read previous entries, click here.

Review: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

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I’ve really gone and done it now. Taking on a film with this range of artistic merit in the minds of a hushed, reverent, and international audience and then writing about it … it might be out of reach from someone who has only aspired as high as I have. My claim to a modest degree of fame is writing about anime, and I won’t pretend I say anything more or less substantial than the next critic falling over themselves to hammer out a quick entry for their blog.

kaguya1Ghibli is a known quantity. Anything I can drop in that hat, as far as critical observation goes, is a handful of dust in the wind. That The Tale of Princess Kaguya is a miraculous triumph, a masterful work of the highest caliber, is all rather unsurprising. As it should be. No surprises are fine. Sometimes, you just want what’s written on the tin. Granted, some Ghibli works are better than others, so it doesn’t help much if I say it was good, fantastic, better than Ponyo, or whatever other hasty judgment I could wish to lay on it. Any terse sort of emphatic acclaim that people will lay on thick, myself not excluded, is going to fade from mind once the film begins to move.

That Princess Kaguya is a miraculous triumph, a masterful work of the highest caliber, is all rather unsurprising.

Kaguya will be best enjoyed indulgently, slowly, frame-by-frame once a video release is available. From the start, the film falls over the shoulders like a warm and richly textured blanket. It runs a lengthy two hours and change, so it’s best to get comfortable. Among Studio Ghibli’s extensive body of work, Kaguya stands apart by showing little outward resemblance to anything else they’ve done. Better for it. Words like “beautiful” and “majestic” will suffice, but when the pictures are in motion, these descriptors become trite. Ghibli's penchant for overproduced scenery bursting with detail is kept in check. The minutiae is substituted for the broad strokes, for solid colors and palatial wooden floors. A rewatch won’t reward anyone with a Totoro cameo (I hope)—the rustling bamboo, streaming fabrics, and expressive character animation are reward enough.

…the rustling bamboo, streaming fabrics, and expressive character animation are reward enough.

In spirit, Kaguya carries a lot of Ghibli’s signature strokes. Before I make the egregious mistake of writing a certain Colonel Sanders impersonator's name before Isao Takahata, let it be known that Takahata is the one and only accredited director for The Tale of Princess Kaguya. And even with a thinly-veiled environmental message here and a violent shock of animated hair there, Kaguya wishes to outrun the specter of Miyazaki and the Ghibli brand as much as the titular princess herself wishes to outrun fate. Merely wishes; Kaguya is not a radical departure from what Ghibli does, and Miyazaki is as alive as ever as of this writing. But the idea is starting to form. Kaguya doesn’t reveal a bold new direction for a studio contending with the reduced direct involvement of a person once believed to be a permanent fixture, but it does betray hints of unexpected development. “Growth” is hardly the sort of term anyone could attribute to a studio as mature as Ghibli, but given another forty years, what kind of work will they be creating? The princess joins a long line of irascible heroines dashing through harmonious wilderness, and I sincerely want to believe that this may be the end of the line. It certainly feels like the right note to end on. If Studio Ghibli doesn’t store away for good the template that’s given the world Nausicaä, Kiki, San, and so forth after this, only then do I take everything back—they haven’t changed a bit, won’t change at all, and they aren’t fit to be led by anyone amounting to more than a ghost in a white apron.

Like I said, Ghibli is not a place to look for for surprises. Perhaps that applies doubly so for Kaguya, an adaptation of an age-old story. During one scene, I had a twinkle in my eye for all of ten seconds about interpreting Kaguya through the lense of feminist critique, but I’ll leave that to a steadier hand than mine. It’s a film you can show your mum or a progressive and aggressively outspoken girl friend, but perhaps something like Howl’s Moving Castle will be a little more crowd-pleasing. Kaguya is a tale, a rare and lovingly rendered one, and perhaps like the fairy tales we have stateside, a tale inflicted on restless Japanese children before bed. I was enthralled for two-thirds of it, and the end never seems to arrive until it just does. The film doesn’t fail to rise to the necessary emotional crescendo during the final moments, but it does take it’s time to get there; few would be held to blame for being lost to sleep before then.

Kaguya's better than Spirited Away.
Discuss one Ghibli film and you end up contemplating them all. Graded comparisons are unavoidable, and I’m not above it. Kaguya falls somewhere around personal favorites Castle in the Sky and Totoro, and I refuse to clarify which stands above the other. The only statement I’d wish to be quoted on is that it’s better than Spirited Away, since that feels like the sort of en vogue thing to say right now. Kaguya is certainly not the first Ghibli film to be declared better than Spirited Away, but better than Ponyo just seems cruel these days. I’ve never even seen Ponyo.

Umineko: When They Cry

More than just a murder mystery: a mirror to humanity

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EDITOR'S NOTE — We've got yet another awesome guest feature, this time from reader Katriel Paige, who studies the intersection of folklore and pop culture. Enjoy! 

Warning: here there be talk of abuse, incest, greed, petty complaints, and very complex humans.

When a player begins Umineko: When They Cry, or starts reading the manga, they are hit with a tale of murder and witches. But the story isn't about discovering the “truth” about one particular event. This is a journey of multifaceted creatures: a journey that invites us, as readers/watchers, to look at ourselves and the rest of humanity in the mirror of the games, the manga, or the anime. After all, the series presents different ways of looking at this and asks us to draw our own conclusions. (Admittedly, the manga, due to format issues, does lead you towards a particular conclusion, but whether it is a satisfying conclusion to you is still up for you alone to decide.) The series spends a great deal of time on the family dynamics and characterizations of who we encounter. Is the truth there?

The head of the Ushiromiya family is ill, and during the annual family conference on the island of Rokkenjima, the older family members start arguing about the inheritance. The grandchildren, however, just want to enjoy themselves. Often, they only see each other for the conference, but this particular conference seems spoiled by a building atmosphere of pettiness. Then people start getting murdered. Curious sigils appear. The legend of Beatrice, the witch who gave the family head a rumored 10 tons of gold, comes into play. Whodunnit?

Certainly these murders could be explained away without resorting to “a witch did it,” right? But given that the murders take place on the island of Rokkenjima and there are 18 people on the island, explaining away how the murders happened without resorting to fantastical magic powers seems to mean blaming either a family member or a servant that has served for years. The main character, Battler Ushiromiya, wants to do neither, but he wants to figure out the truth. But as the tales spin and stories continue, it seems everyone on the island of Rokkenjima has some motive or another to kill: a mysterious inheritance, sibling rivalries, jealousies, and chains of abuse.

Let's start from a simple example of this multifaceted characterization and go from there.

101 Level

Let's take the main protagonist, Battler Ushiromiya. We see him as 18 years old and almost immediately going on about how the family head (Kinzo) named everyone in “weird” ways: spelling out their names with kanji but with Western-sounding names. Battler goes on to say that he didn't ask to be born into a rich family or anything and would rather that people leave him alone; he's still a bit upset, after all, about his mother Asumu dying and his father (Rudolf) marrying his business partner, Kyrie, seemingly so soon afterwards. Battler's on civil terms with Kyrie when the series begins, but the rift between him and his father caused Battler to miss the Ushiromiya family gatherings for about eight years — he's been away and hasn't seen his relatives for some time.

A player/reader/viewer can attribute this to the fact we're being introduced to the thought processes of an 18 year old boy born into a rich family. But even at the start, we get a sense of pettiness; he cut off ties and refused to have anything to do with the Ushiromiya family for eight years. Was the family really that bad? Was there anything else that caused this? We see him portrayed as having courage, blind luck, and a fairly good grasp of logic, but we also see him hold grudges and be completely oblivious as to how his actions, inactions, and lack of thought may affect others on Rokkenjima.

In short, we are not asked to reduce even the protagonist to one or two traits. We are not asked to view him as a saint or even a victorious hero. We see his failures, his confusion, and his anger just as clearly as we see him having fun with his cousins or trying to console a family member or help a servant.

201 Intermediate Level

We spend a bit more time with Eva Ushiromiya, daughter of Kinzo Ushiromiya and mother of George, in the third arc. She may have grated on us a bit in earlier arcs, but now we discover why she seemed so petty towards George loving a servant. As one of the Ushiromiya daughters, she underwent strict training. While she was competent, her father would lament, “Why weren't you born male?” She would never take control of the household or the family. Instead, she had to maneuver to gain any sort of control at all; since she had the fortune of giving birth to George (the first male grandson), she tries to use that in her favor.

Yes, it's tempting to see her as conniving and manipulative. But we see her being abused and belittled too. We see her frustration. We also see her affection for her husband, Hideyoshi, whom she truly does care for because there's less judgment — it's more relaxed. We are told she is knowledgeable in martial arts and that she taught George, but we also see that Eva can hold her own in a fight with words just as well as in a physical fight. We see her break down and cry if she loses Hideyoshi or George. We see her want to provide. And even if it's a twisted, destructive way of wanting to provide, it seems rooted in the idea of the household she grew up in — the traditional system of the ie (household/clan).

Now for the Advanced Level

The Ushiromiya family head is named Kinzo. When we first encounter him, it's through Battler talking about how Kinzo seems infatuated with the West and how Kinzo seems to have the only vaguely normal (i.e., Japanese) name. We quickly hear other things, like Kinzo raving about the witch Beatrice or that his sons and daughters (Krauss, Eva, Rudolf, and Rosa) seem frightened to the point of panic at the possibility of confronting him. We see him talk about how he refuses to write a will, because he condemns his family as vultures who would fight over it. We're also introduced to the idea that Kinzo liked playing chess, researched magic, and did a number of eccentric things — again, the raving about witches, but also things like sponsoring an orphanage and allowing orphans raised at said orphanage to work at the Ushiromiya family house to give them skills and funds they could use to build their own lives afterwards.

Players/readers/watchers also hear how Kinzo not only kept a mistress — an idea brought up relatively early — but also managed to orchestrate buying out the island of Rokkenjima, and how he was obsessed with death during World War II. Then we hear about when he fell in love with his mistress. He was obsessed with her, going so far as to refuse to acknowledge her death, such that he eventually confined, raped, and impregnated said mistress' child. Yet we also see — shortly after discovering all these things — that he knows he did horrible deeds; wants some measure of forgiveness from this child if at all possible (it's implied this is why he sponsored the orphanage in the first place); and, in terms of his family, sincerely enjoyed giving them presents and holding a little party for Halloween when they came for the family conference in October. We are invited to see all of these actions and traits as Kinzo; he may have done monstrous horrible things, and you might hate him for those things, but in the end, he's not a monster or a wizard or anything.

This journey through the characters, and through the idea of “truth,” ends with the character of Ange, Battler's younger sister. She wants to find out the truth of what happened. Before she can do this, however, she has to find out more about the people that were there and “meet them” on their level with the resources available to her. Only then can she come to any satisfying conclusion for herself. Ange — and vicariously the readers/players/watchers, a.k.a. we ourselves — is not asked to take one side or another, to hold up any characters as examples of heroism or cowardice. We are asked to view the characters as human, with all that complexity and horror and hope that might entail, and see their journeys up until their arrival on Rokkenjima for that fateful family conference in order to figure out what makes most sense given what we have seen.

Review: Helter Skelter – Fashion Unfriendly

Coming down fast but don't let me break you

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Serialized in 1995 in Japan via Feel Young Magazine (a fitting magazine title for the story contained therein), Helter Skelter speaks just as strongly on the subjects of fashion and celebrity in 2014 as it probably did upon its original publication. That’s depressing, since it means that tempting, impossible promises of perfect bodies are still the bread and butter of the fashion industry. Kyoko Okazaki’s unflinching critique of this world cuts deep yet mostly avoids the sort of pointed moralizing you might expect from a story about the subject.

Liliko is beautiful from head to toe, with shockingly European features, an alluring figure, and an enigmatic personality. As a supermodel, she finds her way into fashion, acting, singing, and more — she's a true celebrity in that her greatest asset is simply her own brand. But Liliko is a fake. As the president of her agency muses early in the book, “the only parts she’s kept are her bones, eyeballs, nails, hair, ears, and twat.” The rest, including her skin and fat, has been destroyed then reconstructed through a gruesome plastic surgery process, and is maintained thanks to a dizzying cocktail of drugs. Liliko’s career is suspended by tenuous strings, existing only with the help of a dangerous, secretive lifestyle of heavy drugging and regular plastic surgery checkups. But by the end of the first chapter, her skin begins to bruise. The mask is falling off.

Kyoko Okazaki’s unflinching critique of the fashion world cuts deep.

Soon, Liliko’s life spirals out of control, dragging her besotted, bisexual manager and her boyfriend into the mix. Meanwhile, a detective takes an interest in Liliko and begins to connect her to his investigation of the underground clinic she patronizes.

Liliko’s lifestyle is portrayed as monstrous, not enviable.

Okazaki pulls no punches here. It takes only 10 pages to get to full-frontal nudity, and Liliko’s lifestyle is portrayed as monstrous, not enviable. She spits water in the face of her manager, verbally degrades everyone around her, then turns around and sweetly demands that they make themselves available to her, professionally and sexually. Her arrogance might be abrasive if Okazaki wasn’t so masterful at drawing you into her world, making the distressed, nearly bipolar Liliko out to be a victim of herself.

And victims abound, though there are no clear culprits. Is the head of Liliko’s agency, who discovered the then-overweight woman and reconstructed her, to blame? Do the stylists, hairdressers, and managers who take Liliko’s arrogant verbal lashings then tell her how great she is contribute to that very same arrogance? What of the girls who eat up the tabloid celebrity gossip, wanting nothing more than to be just like Liliko and proving their dedication by buying into a broken system? Okazaki makes clear that, in the end, we are all to blame. The destructive nature of celebrity is a collaborative project, an ouroboros of unfulfilled dreams wherein the victims become the victimizers. There is no better example than the head of the agency, whom Liliko refers to as “Mama” (her real mother is never shown), and who “created” Liliko in her own image to live her youth anew.

All of this pain is depicted with stark, scratchy line art. Perhaps most impressive is Okazaki’s versatility; she is able to depict a gorgeous glamor shot followed by a minimalistic one-panel visual gag, and each has its own distinct personality. When Helter Skelter veers toward the cartoonish, the designs sometimes resemble the almond eyes and strange faces of Natsume Ono, a more contemporary artist who is undoubtedly influenced by Okazaki. Unfortunately, those faces can be difficult to tell apart — there are three different characters with similar short black hair and earrings (two women and one man).

Helter Skelter floats along in surreal, druggy blurs of emotions and memories but maintains a strong sense of gravity. That’s to say that things fall down and accelerate, and I dare anyone to resist reading the second half of this book, as Liliko’s spiral of despair intensifies, in anything except a single sitting.

Okazaki is a pioneer of modern josei (women’s) manga, and it’s easy to see why. This is no girlish shojo manga, but it’s also not the hard-boiled badassery of seinen. The so-called “mother of josei” (or at least one of them) hits hard and fast with characters who alternate between being tragic and detestable. Like reading the celebrity gossip pages, Helter Skelter will leave you slightly perplexed, supremely disgusted, and more than a little entertained. As long as you come away with number 3, though, that’s mission accomplished as far as the mechanics of celebrity are concerned. The show must go on.

Drunken Otaku: Great Drinker - Hakutaku (Hozuki no Reitetsu)

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Name: Hakutaku
Series: Hozuki no Reitetsu
Episode: 9
Usual: The kitchen sink
Favorite Dive: Mortal Hell
Type of Drunk: The Party Animal, The Excesser, The Soldier

All good great drinkers go to heaven, whether it’s by merit or liver failure or by merit of liver failure. And to prove drinking itself is not a sin, I'll cite Hakutaku: a holistic healer and herbal pharmacist currently livin' it up in Togenkyo at the Sentou Farm in the heaven created by Hozuki no Reitetsu. Far from a lightweight, though far less than a heavyweight, he's a seasoned contender with his heart liver in the right place.

How fitting that a sultry sax backing the interplay of an intimate celestial lightshow featuring the indulgent sounds of an amorous rendezvous serves as Hakutaku’s introduction. This party animal, literally a fantastic beast of Chinese (and Japanese) legend, is heard head-over-heels in debauchery at the very beginning of “The Ultimate Example of Ruin Through Wine and Women.” There’s talk of drink, flirtatious tones, begging for more drink, coy giggling, and declarations of intent to drink more! But for wild nights, there are even more wild consequences.

Hakutaku has a habit, during his drinking binges, of mixing all kinds of alcohol with Chinese rice wine. This kitchen sink aapproach to consumption is never without night-of and morning-after consequences. Luckily the more immediate ramifications from intoxication are enjoyed and, depending on personal tolerance levels, ultimately forgotten—the fleeting courtship with vise-induced frivolity called partying. The morning after, however…

Bowing to the porcelain god is common practice for those committed to the customs of the cocktail clergy. Penance is offered by bowl and oath, both usually in repetition. It’s via such repentance that morning’s vale becomes a bit thinner and hints of the previous night’s transgressions become visible—like, in Hakutaku’s case, inadvertently hiring the infamous Daiji as his courtesan. While there’s no quick cure for her bill, there’s at least a well-known cure for the more physical ailments of his hangover.

I’m not talkin’ about Hakutaku’s preferred order of orento, I’m talkin’ hair of the dog. If it’s one thing great drinkers know how to do despite circumstance, it’s how to soldier on. So when Hakutaku gets teased about being a lesser drinker than his sworn rival, Hozuki, Hakutaku swears to go to mortal hell for bottle or few of cure (despite Toro Wine Falls, a literal waterfall of top-quality sake, being around the corner from his house). Thus Hakutaku keeps drinking and never learns his lesson.  Hey, wait. What do I mean by lesson?! This is sacred ritual. The drinker’s duty! A soldier’s pride. The drunken otaku salute you, Hakutaku! After all, “A good liver is hardly worth bragging about.”

Hozuki no Reitetsu is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.